Smell My Elephant
Writing has been a part of Tina Ballon DeBord’s life since childhood. In middle school she would jot down ideas on a pad, inspired by the lyrics she heard in songs. As she learned more about literature, those ideas began to crystalize into a love of poetry. She began writing poems herself and at the University of Toledo she earned an undergraduate degree in poetry, followed by a graduate degree from the University of Michigan.
Transitioning into writing for children was “completely accidental,” DeBord explained. “I never aspired to write for children until I had kids of my own. And then, I saw that children have this way of just making stories appear all around, all day long, every day. That was something that I was fortunate to experience.”
Smell My Elephant, DeBord’s whimsical and charming book, was inspired not by her own kids, but by her nephew, Beckett, when he was three years old. One day, Beckett walked up to DeBord’s sister-in-law and uttered a memorable phrase: “Smell my elephant’s head, mom!”
“He was talking about his stuffed animal,” DeBord explained. “His mom wrote down the quote and repeated it to me, which expanded into an entire narrative [in my mind]. Though the narrative was made up, what he (Beckett) said was factual.”
DeBord’s writing process is a bit unconventional. She came up with the book’s plot while raking leaves. “There’s something for me about staying busy, whether I’m riding a bike or hiking or walking the dog or doing yard work, that allows me to focus. Then I sit down at a computer later and loosely lay out the narrative,” she explained.
The story she settled on was one of exploration, a curiosity that Fletcher— the book’s lead character, inspired by Beckett— embodies. “When I was coming up with the narrative, I was thinking of a little boy who just wants to explore his world. So he’s got this question, ‘Why does my elephant smell funny?’ And his whole purpose is try to come up with an answer to that question, and he asks everyone he knows.”
Sweetness at the center
Eventually, Fletcher comes to the conclusion that his elephant’s unusual smell is because he (and others) hug and love it so much.
“There’s a sweetness that the publisher appreciated and really latched onto,” DeBord said. “And for them, it became a book about children and their love of stuffed animals. But when I was writing the book, I wasn’t really thinking about that. I was thinking about a kid who just wants to make sense of his world.”
DeBord’s sister-in-law, Kim Jackson DeBord, often drew sketches to relate anecdotes about her family, as a way of remembering the stories, so she was a natural choice to join the project as an illustrator. “I explained to Kim, ‘I don’t know if we can do anything with this, or if you’re even interested, but that quote stuck in my head. I think we’ve got a really interesting character here,’” DeBord said.
A good story
The end result is a delightful work that reaches a wide ranging audience, though DeBord admits the central theme she had built the story around isn’t what many audiences are taking from it.
“For me, the story is about a character going on a mission to discover an answer to a puzzle. For others, the story is about the cute relationship between a child and a beloved stuffed animal. That feedback helped me calibrate my purpose as a children’s book author.”
“Children and the parents who read to them usually just want a good story. Now, when I write, I aim to put the narrative first and the lesson last, if I intentionally include a lesson at all.”
Smell My Elephant, 32pp, Sleeping Bear Press. Available at Amazon.com.